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SF police union sues to block retroactive release of officer files under new transparency law

Joining in a statewide fight against a new transparency law, The San Francisco Police Officers Association on Friday sued to prevent the San Francisco Police Department from turning over personnel files of police officers created before Jan. 1.

The legal move is the latest in a series of lawsuits filed this year by police unions seeking to block the implementation of Senate Bill 1421, which makes public previously confidential personnel records on misconduct including police shootings, excessive use of force incidents resulting in death or serious injury, confirmed cases of sexual assault and lying by officers.

The POA is seeking a court order directing The City and its agencies to “refrain from enforcing or taking any steps to enforce” SB 1421 — which was introduced by state Sen. Nancy Skinner and took effect Jan. 1 — “with respect to records created prior to” that date, or show cause at hearing why it should not have to obey, according to court documents.

The union is also seeking a temporary restraining order to prevent city agencies from fulfilling records requests pending a hearing on the order.

Requests for comment were not returned by a spokesperson for the POA or the POA’s lawyers by press time.

Previously, disclosure of complaints against officers or any information relating to misconduct maintained in personnel files was prohibited in any criminal or civil proceeding except by way of discovery.

The change in law requires that records relating to certain incidents to be unsealed. Opponents to the law have argued that this could violate officer’s privacy and safety, and that the law does not specify whether it should be applied retroactively.

An attempt by police unions to block the retroactive implementation of SB 1421 by asking the state Supreme Court to grant an injunction was denied in January.

Since Jan. 1, The City “has received numerous Public Records Act (PRA) requests pursuant to Senate Bill 1421 calling for, among other things, personnel files of peace officers created before Jan. 1, 2019” and intends “to produce such documents” beginning March 1, according to court documents.

In its court filing, the POA argues that whether those documents should be turned over to the public is a “source of dispute between the parties,” and that the matter is currently being taken up by the First and Second Appellate District Courts of Appeals.

The union argues that “judicial guidance” on the scope of the new law is needed to avoid “critical harm” to officers as a result of “untimely improper production of documents.”

City Attorney’s Office spokesperson John Cote said in a statement Saturday that police officers “have a dangerous job, and their work is critical to society,” but that it also carries “extra responsibility.”

“We give law enforcement officers a tremendous amount of authority. With that authority comes a duty to the public. Our communities have a clear interest in reviewing records related to sustained findings of misconduct when they involve things like filing false reports or sexual assault on a member of the public,” said Cote. “The public also deserves transparency in situations where an officer shoots at a person.”

Cote said that a clearly stated intent behind the bill was to “open up all responsive records — from the past and future alike.”

“There’s nothing in this law that limits it only to future records. We are going to proudly defend the public’s right to transparency in their government,” he said.

According to court documents, the union has petitioned for a hearing on the matter to be scheduled by April 3.

lwaxmann@sfexaminer.com

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